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Chicago Police 'phone trees' grow out of Ferguson protests

Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy watched the violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and realized his own department needed to go on the offensive to give the public its version of events in potentially controversial incidents.

McCarthy said he noticed an increase in protests of police-involved shootings in Chicago after a white officer killed an unarmed 18-year-old black man in Ferguson on Aug. 9.

“In the absence of information, there is a vacuum that can get filled with rumor, innuendo and outright lies,” he said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “In every police shooting after Ferguson, someone is trying to spark a fire.”

So McCarthy instructed his supervisors to do more to keep the public in the loop following high-profile incidents. “It doesn’t have to be a police shooting. It could be a vehicle pursuit; it could be a building collapse,” he said.

McCarthy has instructed his district commanders to form “phone trees” with the telephone numbers of key community leaders including aldermen, pastors, priests, teachers and others. The commander is supposed to give them the basic facts without jeopardizing the investigation.

“If there are issues in the community about what happened, we will hold a closed-door community meeting as quickly as we can, even the next day, if necessary, with a small cadre of community leaders,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said he doesn’t want the department to “be defensive” in such incidents.

“Transparency is part of our legitimacy,” he said.

The public needs to know, for example, if the police recovered a gun from a wounded offender, the superintendent said.

Community leaders can relay those facts to protesters who might be reacting to false information, McCarthy said.

He said he brought the phone tree idea from Newark, New Jersey, where he was police chief.

McCarthy said he encouraged district commanders in Chicago to form phone trees after he became superintendent here in 2011, and some did. But now every district commander is required to make the calls as a matter of policy, he said.

The Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Church on the South Side, said he thinks the department has improved its outreach to civic leaders in recent years.

“For a long time, the police felt they could handle it alone — and they can’t,” he said. “I really think this has to be citywide, this commitment from both sides to solve things. It has to be an equal relationship,” he said.

Pfleger said he speaks regularly to the commander in the Gresham District.

“If I see tensions brewing, I will call the commander or [the tactical unit],” he said. “Or they will call us about tension between this gang and that gang, and our guys will go out and find out what’s going on before it boils over.”

In another move on the information front, McCarthy recently started having department officials brief reporters at the scenes of police-involved shootings.

There have been 14 fatal police-involved shootings this year, and two since October, records show.

McCarthy acknowledged the information the department is releasing on such shootings is “kind of sterile and kind of short” because it’s raw.

The Chicago Police Department used to give briefings at police-involved shootings, but stopped the practice in 2007. The face of the department at those shootings was usually Pat Camden, a now-retired police spokesman.

In 2011, Camden began doing on-scene media briefings for the Fraternal Order of Police after police-involved shootings. His briefings typically explain why the officer felt compelled to use deadly force.

McCarthy’s decision to have department officials speak up after police-involved shootings was welcomed by Scott Ando, the head of the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates such cases.

Ando said it didn’t engender public confidence when the FOP sent a spokesman to the scene of a police-involved shooting to tell the officer’s side of the story and that was the only version carried by the news media until IPRA’s investigation was completed.

“I have no control over Pat Camden and the FOP. They have their reasons for doing what they do. But it is kind of disconcerting to me that, sometimes the message that gets out there is, ‘We’ve looked at it and it’s a justified shooting’ when we are just there on the scene and beginning our investigation. It’s unfair to us,” said Ando, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent.

But Camden defended his briefings.

“It puts the community at ease that it’s not just the police [randomly] shooting at somebody,” he said. “An officer doesn’t look forward to using deadly force — but an officer also looks forward to going home at night.”